My poem “Where the Music Died,” has won the District Lit Reader’s Choice Award, I learned today in an e-mail from District Lit’s founding editor, Diana Smith Bolton.
It is a poem about the day I took my mother to see the site of the 1959 plane crash that killed the young rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The plane crashed in a farm field not too far south of where I live. The poem was published by District Lit in 2013 and was among the nominees for the inaugural Reader’s Choice Award, which pulled together a group of nominees from among the poems published by District Lit the last 2-1/2 years.
District Lit, from suburban Washington D.C., is a very solid literary journal, with a strong annual crop of pieces nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards, so it was nice to be recognized with the nomination — and now, well, very nice to get the award. Some of you reading this may have voted in the online poll, so thank you, too.
It’s not just the award that’s cool about this, but that there’ll be more recognition coming. District Lit plans to feature my poem and the winning short story in the fiction contest (by Faith Gardner) in a display at its book at the Association of Writing Programs (AWP) annual convention next month in Minneapolis. It’s April 8-11 at the Minneapolis Convention Center and Hilton Minneapolis Hotel. AWP is a big gathering, mostly of the nation’s college writing programs, and is held in a different city each year. This year, there will be more than 2,000 presenters and 550 readings, panel discussions and lectures.
Plus, District Lit will publish a chapbook of my poem and Faith Gardner’s short story and make copies available at AWP.
If you haven’t seen the poem, here it is:
Where the Music Died
It’s where the music died
the place she has thought about,
off and on, for fifty-three years:
the farm field, the bodies flung
from the falling, thudding plane
into the ice and snow and dirt.
Now she is here, a graying, ill woman,
still younger than Buddy Holly would have been,
still older than Ritchie Valens would have been.
It’s Holly she’s come for:
The strong-jawed Texan,
defiant in the studio,
defiant in his music — guitars of rage and rebellion and youth,
lyrics of such ferocity that she knew he not only understood love,
but had plunged a fist into the blood and meat of it, found its heart.
Barbed-wire, concrete block, daddy’s crossed-arms: None
stand a chance stopping a fire like that.
And what girl wouldn’t want that?
We’ve taken her there, north of Clear Lake.
Not much of a shrine, the simplicity, the absence
of commercialism, is a nod, it’s said,
to modesty and the sanctity of death.
But it is so modest as to be cheapened,
I think: a super-sized, sheet-metaled pair of black
horn-rimmed glasses at the road side,
and, in the field itself, a pair of shiny silver metal cut-outs,
on the lip of a field path, pressed against barbed-wire
separating a corn field from a soybean field.
The crash site is kitsch site, too. Fans, tourists
leave random personal belongings beneath the two markers,
scarves, beads, bottle of cologne, glasses, plastic flowers, combs, small change:
it’s as if someone dumped a purse upside down.
My mother says a couple things about this, but otherwise
is content to stand where the singers died,
to think of a past where she was a beauty: spry,
a cheerleader, eye-catcher of young men in two states.
Music does this, of course, lets us hum through time, place, memory.
So does thinking about death.
The crash site gives both,
and my mother shuffles her feet through the little piles
of debris, making her way around the markers, nearly
getting snagged by the fencing.
Ground lightning off to the west. But she’s in no hurry.
Is she saying a graveside prayer?
Maybe singing “Oh Boy,” to herself.
We take some photos.
Then she speaks, saying something about Buddy Holly’s wife
being pregnant when he died —
his young wife.
On our way back to the car, I tap my fingers
on the steel of the big pair of glasses,
and they make a slight pinging noise.
I’d like to say it sounds like a guitar chord, but it doesn’t.
It just sounds like sheet metal in the open air of Iowa,
in a place where men died.